Trial of Jesus

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The legal proceeding by which Jesus was judged after His arrest and condemned to death, first by the Jewish Sanhedrin, then by Pontius Pilate, Roman Procurator of Judea. The account of the trial given by the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 14.5315.15; Mt 26.5727.26; Lk 22.5423.25) differs considerably from that of the Gospel according to St. John (18.1219.16), although all four are substantially in accord. Mark and Matthew describe the trial before the Sanhedrin in two phases, with Peter's denial between them; Luke places the denial before his uninterrupted account of a single Sanhedrin trial; John gives a description of the interview between Jesus and Annas, as well as of those between Jesus and Pilate, but he omits a description of the actual trial, except for a brief reference to caiaphas, the actual high priest, and son-in-law of Annas. Only Matthew speaks of the wife of Pilate and her dream.

Chronology. The time sequence of the trial and execution of Jesus is difficult to determine because of the differences between the Synoptic and Johannine accounts and because of the complicated nature of astronomical calculations. The Synoptic account places the Last Supper, which was apparently the Passover meal of Jesus and His Apostles, before the trial, i.e., on the 14th of the month of Nisan, and the death of Jesus on Friday the 15th of Nisan. John's account describes the reluctance of the accusers to enter the courtyard of Pilate's palace on the morning of the day of execution as caused by their desire to avoid contamination that would prevent their eating the Passover meal, which Jesus and His Apostles appear to have already had. Yet all four Gospels agree that Jesus died on a Friday, and that they had had the Supper before the arrest. If the Last Supper was for them the ritual Passover meal prescribed for the evening of the 14th of Nisan, then that day was Thursday and the following day, Friday, the day of Jesus' death, was the 15th of Nisan. The Johannine account, clearly divergent from this, indicates that Jesus' Last Supper was on the day before the Passover meal of the judges who condemned Him and that He died on the day that these judges considered the Preparation Day (παρασκεωή) of the Passover, i.e., the 14th of Nisan. Although the question remains open, one solution is that of the two calendars whereby the Sadducees observed the Passover meal and feast (the 14th and the 15th of Nisan) on Friday and Saturday and the Pharisees kept the two days on Thursday and Friday. The Synoptic account is reconcilable with the Pharisee calendar; the Johannine, with that of the Sadducees. In either case, given the tenuous nature of the question, the date of the execution of Jesus must be a Friday, either the 14th or the 15th of Nisan, during the reign of Pilate (a.d. 26 to 36). Within this period the only possible dates for the 14th of Nisan are March 18, 29, and April 3, 33. Of these two dates, the former is incompatible with the date of the beginning of Jesus' public life in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar (Lk3.1), which was a.d. 29. The only possible dates for the 15th of Nisan are April 7, 30, and April 27, 31. According to the Synoptic account the two latter dates are possible; the Johannine narrative favors the a.d. 33 date.

Revision of the chronology of the entire Last Supper-Crucifixion sequence has been proposed (1957) on the basis of the material contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the apocryphal Books of Jubilees and Enoch. According to this proposal, which has been well received, Jesus and His Apostles followed the solar calendar that was used also by the qumran community, according to which the Passover always fell on a Wednesday, so that the Passover meal was eaten on Tuesday evening. Although this "chronology of three days" for the trial of Jesus has much in its favor, including the approval of many reputable authorities, it still remains a minority opinion.

Trial before the Sanhedrin. With the substance of the Gospel accounts taken as historically reliable and with allowances made for the peculiarities of each Evangelist, a probable reconstruction of the course of events

is as follows: Jesus was apprehended at night in the garden of Gethsemani by Jewish police (probably attached to the Jerusalem Temple guard) and taken first to Annas, who, although no longer acting high priest since his deposition in a.d. 15, nevertheless continued to retain the title and to wield decisive influence; five of his sons, as well as a son-in-law (Joseph Caiaphas, a.d. 18 to 37), and a grandson were successors in the pontificate. Annas's honorary but powerful position explains why Jesus was brought first to him. Only John (Jn 18.1214; 1923) records this interview, but not the one conducted by Caiaphas, to which he merely alludes (Jn 18.24), probably because he considers it sufficiently described in the Synoptics and also because it serves as a background to his account of Peter's denial, which he considers indispensable because it contains fulfillment of the denial prediction recorded in Jn 13.38. Annas's questioning of Jesus was most probably not of an official character, since he was no longer high priest, although he was undoubtedly familiar with the plot against Jesus (Jn 18.14).

If the narrative of John 18.1923 refers to Annas, the preliminary examination failed to produce any evidence of secret activity on the part of Jesus against the Jewish or Roman authorities. In any case, Jesus manifested neither the guilty bearing of a criminal nor the servility typical of defendants. He was then taken before the Sanhedrin and Caiphas, the reigning high priest and its president ex officio. Other members of the 71-man ruling council were chief priests and leading elders, both of which groups were chiefly sadducees and scribes, the latter of the Pharisee caste. Although Flavius josephus, the mishnah, and the talmud indicate that the regular meeting place of the Sanhedrin was either on the western slope of the Temple mount or in one of the halls of the Temple complex itself (some scholars speak of a meeting place on the Mount of Olives), still the Gospels clearly say that the preliminary planning for the arrest and conviction of Jesus, as well as the trial itself and the denial by Peter, all occurred in the house of the high priest. These indications are reconcilable with the tradition that both Annas and Caiaphas lived in the same palace, near the cenacle. This would also explain why Jesus was brought to Annas first.

The predetermined purpose of the trial was the condemnation to death of Jesus (Mt 26.35: Mk 14.1, 55; Lk 22.12; Jn 11.4553). However, the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution was legally invalid because their depositions, being fragmentary and confused, failed to agree in every detail, as was required by Deuteronomy 17.6; 19.5 (Mishnah Sanh. 4.1d). Jesus' refusal to defend Himself against these accusers (Mt 26.62) is an indication that He was aware of the futility of offering any defense against those whose purpose was obvious. Having failed to adduce damning evidence from competent witnesses, the Sanhedrists realized that other means were necessary in order to achieve the desired conviction. The high priest himself then demanded personally that Jesus state unequivocally whether He was the Messiah, the Son of God, i.e., the divinely appointed leader of national restoration and inaugurator of the messianic era described in the writings of the Prophets and more prominent in the expectations of later Judaism from the Machabean period onward. Just as directly, Jesus answered in the affirmative, arrogating to Himself the imagery of Daniel 7.13 and Psalms 109 (110).1, both of which passages vindicate the regal power of dominion to the legitimate representative ("son") of God. Jesus' reply was His death warrant. His judges declared Him guilty of blasphemy and liable to the extreme penalty of death. [see blasphemy (in the bible).]

That the judgment of the Sanhedrin was a true death sentence is evident from Mark's use of the word κατέκριναν (14.64); the same word occurs in Mt 27.3, which describes Judas's remorse at learning that Jesus had been condemned (κατεκρίθη). The same verb, κατακρινο[symbol omitted]σιν (they will condemn), is used in Mk 10.33; Mt 20.18 concerning the action of the Sanhedrin in Jesus' third prediction of His Passion. These two latter statements, even if they are to be taken as predictions post factum, nevertheless are clear in their presentation of the nature of the verdict.

It is evident in the light of later Jewish history that the Sanhedrists who condemned Jesus did so, not on the basis of Mishnaic law, which only later became codified and generally applicable under Pharisaic auspices following the Synod of Jamnia (a.d. 90), but according to the broader and consequently less tolerant notion of blasphemy characteristic of the Sadducean legalists whose influence predominated within the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus' trial. That this less benign view was current is evident from the earlier accusations of blasphemy which were leveled against Jesus in Mark 2.7 and John 10.33 (cf. also Acts 12.22; 14.14). Although the Old Testament does not define blasphemy, it does discuss it in general terms (Ex 22.27: Lev 24.1116; Nm 15.30). Furthermore, the mutual antagonism of Jesus and the legalists perdured since the beginning of the Public Ministry (Mt 7.28: Mk1.22; 2.68); occasionally it is described in the Gospels as open conflict, but more often it appeared in the form of incessant criticism of each other's attitude toward the prevailing interpretation of the Mosaic tradition. The plot against Jesus therefore was the culmination of a long period in which the dominant legal parties had observed Jesus' growing popularity and their proportionately diminishing influence (Mk 12.3537; Lk 19.48). John presents the resuscitation of Lazarus as the last and decisive event of this conflict (Jn 12.911). In view of this long-continuing antagonism, it is not unlikely that at least some of the judges at Jesus' trial were less than completely impartial and were easily influenced by the decisive dialogue between Jesus and Caiphas to bring their attitude to definitive expression by a capital verdict.

Trial before Pilate's Tribunal. Under Roman rule, however, this sentence of the Sanhedrin was only declaratory; the execution of it was reserved to the procurator, who, as representative of the Roman imperial court, reserved to himself the jus gladii. It was therefore necessary to obtain from Pontius pilate the confirmation of the sentence and its execution.

The procurators ordinarily resided in the port city of caesarea in palestine, but at festival times they were accustomed to stay in Jerusalem, establishing their court, or praetorium, in the palace of Herod. Although many maintain that Pilate's residence was in the fortress Antonia, overlooking the Temple complex, the more favored opinion is that Jesus was brought before Pilate in Herod's palace.

The Sanhedrists who had condemned Jesus to the death penalty on religious grounds of blasphemy, brought before Pilate charges against Jesus of a political nature. Obviously they could hope for no execution unless Jesus would be convicted of a capital violation of Roman law. The judges thus charged Jesus before Pilate of stirring up the people, forbidding payment of taxes to Caesar, and declaring Himself a king (Lk 23.12; cf. Mt 27.63, where after His death Jesus is called a deceiver).

Pilate's studied judgment was that Jesus was not guilty of any crime against Roman law. Upon the insistence of the accusers, he continued to consider the case, interviewing Jesus privately, sending Him to herod antipas (who, as tetrarch of Galilee and Perea since the death of his father Herod the Great in 4 b.c., might have jurisdiction over Jesus, a native of Nazareth), offering to release Him in virtue of the traditional Passover amnesty, and allowing Jesus to be scourged (a police punishment ordinarily meted out to agitators who were not Roman citizens, cf. Acts 22.2229), in the hope that this limited punishment would placate the accusers and allow himself to be absolved of further involvement in the case. [see barabbas; flagellation (in the bible).] Although in the course of private interviews with Pilate, Jesus had acknowledged His claim to the title of king, Pilate apparently saw in Jesus' insistence either a religious claim which he considered an internal affair of the Jews, or a delusion, but hardly a likely source of insurrection. Finally, however, Pilate submitted to a threat from the Jews that his releasing of Jesus would be reported to the imperial court in Rome as a failure to crush a possible sedition (crimen laesae majestatis ), since Jesus' acknowledged claim was to the title of Messiah, King of the Jews (Jn 19.1215). This threat, coupled with the insistence of the crowds, whom the Sanhedrists had incited to demand Jesus' death, finally led Pilate to dismiss the matter as quickly and easily as possible, i.e., by acquiescence. He therefore issued the condemnatory order, confirming the death sentence, and assigning crucifixion, the usual Roman form of execution for treason.

See Also: passion of christ, i (in the bible).

Bibliography: j. blinzler, The Trial of Jesus, tr. i. and f. mchugh (Westminster, MD 1959). a. jaubert, La Date de la Cène: Calendrier biblique et liturgie chrétienne (Études bibliques ;1957) 11633. j. a. o'flynn, "The Date of the Last Supper," The Irish Theological Quarterly 25 (1958) 5863. t. a. burkill, "The Competence of the Sanhedrin," Vigiliae christianae 10 (1956) 8096. p. winter, "Marginal Notes on the Trial of Jesus," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 50 (1959) 1433, 22151. x. lÉon-dufour, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928) 6:148587. s. lÉgasse, The Trial of Jesus: Jesus' Vision of God (Atlanta 1997). m. sabbe, "The Trial of Jesus before Pilate in John and its Relation to the Synoptic Gospels," John and the Synoptics, ed. a. denaux (Leuven 1992), 34185. f. millar, "Reflections on the Trial of Jesus," A Tribute to Geza Vermes, ed. p. r. davies and r. t. white (Sheffield, Eng 1990) 35581. r. gordis, ed., "Trial of Jesus in the Light of History: A Symposium," Judaism 20 (Winter 1971) 674.

[t. e. crane]

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Trial of Jesus

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